The Heat Is Online

US Midwest, South Facing Multi-Year Drought

Dry weather a concern in the Americas

Reuters News Service, Jan. 19, 2000

NEW YORK - Dry weather spawned by La Nina may affect spring sowings in the U.S. and make for a dry summer in South America, said a meteorological report from Salomon Smith Barney made available yesterday.

Jon Davis said in the weather section of the Outlook 2000 report that the final five months of 1999 were "exceptionally dry across the vast majority of the nation" with the driest areas located in the central and southern areas of the United States.

"The driest areas correspond to many of the nation's key agricultural areas," Davis said.

On a scale where 1 represents the driest fall and 105 the wettest in the past 105 years of official records, the key cotton-producing state of Texas scored a 2. Scores for other Midwestern farm states ranged from a 4 to an 8, showing widespread dryness.

The areas which got hit included parts of the U.S. Southeast, the Midwest, the Plains and the Southwest.

"Traditionally, dry falls leads to dry winters, which lead to dry springs. This is especially true during La Nina events, since there tends to be a reduced amount of low-level moisture flowing across the U.S.," said Davis.

"Thus, it is likely that there will be dryness concerns going into the 2000 growing season across a large part of the country," he concluded.

La Nina-induced dryness may also hurt crops in Brazil, the world's leading producer of coffee, sugar and orange juice, and in Argentina, a major producer of soybeans, wheat and corn.

The worst drought of the decade developed last year over coffee and sugar-growing areas of east-central Brazil.

"During La Nina events, there is an increased tendency for heat and dryness during the middle of the summer in Argentina and southern Brazil," said Davis. "Whether this leads to major crop problems is a function of the location and timing of the heat and/or dryness."

La Nina followed hard on the heels of El Nino which caused withering drought in Indonesia and large parts of Southeast Asia while causing enormous floods in South America in 1997.

Salomon is a unit of financial services conglomerate Citigroup .


By Ryan Davis, The Boston Globe, March 23, 2000

LAFONTAINE, Ind. - Two miles east of town, on narrow roads with no names, only numbers, Ralph Dawes and his son Greg own 450 acres and farm nearly 1,000 more, 150 miles north-northeast of Indianapolis.

Liberty Acres Farm, they call it. There, the wind blows the sound of bird chirrps and the scent of cow manure over hills on the eastern end of the Corn belt. Spiked with trees, telephone poles, and silos, the cornfields stretch west to Nebraska, which always seems as if it might be visible from the other side of the next tree patch.

But danger lurks beneath the green grass and shaded patches of snow. Last year, drought led to the Daweses' worst-ever corn and soybean harvest. With planting season less than a month away, this year looks even drier and grimmer.

For the first time since the 1950s, the entire Corn Belt is facing a multiyear drought, said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb. While deep soil moisture last year saved some farmers from the rainfall shortage that began in July, that resource is gone.

The first signs of drought have appeared not in the fields or the barns of this northeastern Indiana community, but at the Pizza King. At the gathering spot for this 909-person town in a basketball-crazed state, the conversation isn't about dunks or March Madness. It's about water and drought.

"That means it's pretty bad," said Doug Rensberger, who runs a grain elevator near town. "Indiana's pretty hot on basketball. Some of these guys just wonder if they're going to be able to stay in business."

Almost the entire region has been classified as first-stage, or severe, drought, on a scale that accounts for topsoil condition, stream flows, and precipitation. Crop and pasture losses loom, the fire risk is high, and water shortages are likely.

"They don't have any choice but to plant and pray," Svoboda said. If the predictions hold true, Svoboda said, the damages will almost certainly exceed those of the most expensive drought in the nation's history - a 1988-89 drought that dried out the eastern Corn Belt and that, some estimate, caused $40 billion in damages to farmers and consumers.

Price increases would trickle down to the grocery store, and farmers overseas would benefit, Svoboda said. Some speculate that hundreds of farmers could be driven out of business. A severe drought would also hurt tourism and barging on the Great Lakes, where Lake Michigan waters have sunk to almost record low levels.

For the Daweses, there isn't much to be done. Except for Nebraskans, most Corn Belt farmers don't have irrigation systems. Until now, they haven't needed them.

Ralph Dawes, who bought Liberty Acres in 1959, is looking at his first years of back-to-back drought. The 65-year-old Dawes wears a flannel shirt, a Band-Aid on his thumb, a pair of rubber boots, and a smile to accompany his shrug.

"You can take one year," he said. "And hopefully we can tolerate two. I believe in living and let live. What comes, comes. And hopefully we can survive."

Last summer, Liberty Acres' corn and soybeans yielded only 50 percent of a normal harvest. Winter brought mixed weather to the corn region. Warm temperatures thawed the ground, allowing melted snow to seep into the soil, Svoboda said, but the temperatures were so warm that, coupled with high winds, they dried up much of the moisture.

"Usually you dig a hole for a fence post and it fills with water," said Greg Dawes, 39. "Not now. Nothing. There's no water down there."

At the moment, though, it hardly looks like a drought. Above-average February precipitation for much of the Corn Belt has created a deceiving layer of green atop the dried-out soil, said Michael Palecki, a climatologist at the Midwestern Regional Climate Center in Champaign, Ill.

"They can get the crops in and the crops will come up," Svoboda said, but corn needs more moisture than other major cash crops. "The roots will be tapping into soil that's two, three, four feet down. There's nothing down there."

The Corn Belt stretches from Nebraska, where some farmers have reported dry soil as far down as 15 feet, to Iowa, where several bans on burning have been reinstated, to Illinois, where a 7-inch rainfall deficit over the second half of last year has left parts of the state with less than half its usual soil moisture.

In addition to Indiana, the Corn Belt also includes the far western edge of Ohio, as well as parts of Missouri and Kansas, all of them suffering from a shortage of water.

Svoboda said the region could use four to eight inches of rain over the next five weeks, but added, "That's not going to happen."

The situation is even worse across the South, where drought has persisted from Texas to Georgia. Texas has experienced nearly unceasing drought for four years, creating an officially declared agriculture disaster in some parts of the state.

The East Coast, hit by a highly publicized drought last summer, was moistened by several late-summer and fall tropical storms. But the Midwest hasn't seen any of that.

Ralph Dawes points to his yellow rubber boots, the ones he uses to trudge through cow manure, as the reason he and his son paid the bills last year. Their 60 dairy cows, which typically account for half their profit, were their main source of income last year and kept their nonchalant attitudes intact.

But not all farmers here in Wabash County run a dairy operation. Those who don't have been dubbed "CBM Farmers" by Ralph, Greg, and other year-round farmers. CBM stands for corn, beans, then Miami - and that's not Miami County, Indiana. After the harvest, those farmers head for Florida while Ralph and Greg Dawes keep milking their cows twice a day, 6:30 a.m. and 6 p.m.

"To be a farmer, you have to not know what day of the week it is, not know when it's your birthday, and not know when it's Christmas," the elder Dawes said. "There's a lot of satisfaction that we've earned our way through the drought. I chose this way of life."

But last year, the Daweses fed their cows with stockpiled hay. Now that's rapidly disappearing, and once it's gone, the family will have to buy more if they can't grow it.

"We'll make it through this year if it's as bad as last year," Greg said. "But after that, we'd have to make some big changes."

Already, the father and son have held off on purchasing new equipment. "That's OK for now," Ralph said, "but pretty soon you look around, and you've got nothing but junk."
He refused to speculate how bad the drought would have to be before it forced him to give up his farm, "the perfect place to raise kids," the father of four said.

One of those children, a daughter, Lisa Inyeart, lives 5 miles north. She and her husband, Jerry, got the good end of spotty summer showers and had a record year in 1999.

But Jerry Inyeart wasn't boasting. He knew the weather could get him this year.

"It's like Purdue and Indiana," Ralph said, referring to the state's most heated college basketball rivalry. "You try to keep your mouth shut because you know there's always another game coming up."